Autistic Book Party, Episode 50: Conservation of Shadows

Today’s Book: “Conservation of Shadows,” a short story collection by Yoon Ha Lee

People who have read my reviews of Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, and Revenant Gun will not be surprised that I am a big fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s writing, or that this fandom extends to his short stories as well.

“Conservation of Shadows” is an excellent collection which shows off Lee’s strengths as a writer while also displaying surprising breadth.

Lee is most famous for war-torn space operas full of wildly imaginative, magic-like technology, and these types of stories are certainly on display throughout the collection. Folded, origami-like papers come to life as battle drones (Ghostweight); a group of exiles compose music in honor of ships that have flown into a black hole (Swanwatch); a gun exists that will leave the person shot unharmed but erase all their ancestors from existence (Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain); a book contains the souls of the dead and can be opened to draw on those souls’ abilities (The Book of Locked Doors).

But Lee also strays skillfully out of that genre, from stories of pure high fantasy in which necromancers or demons battle, to the urban sci-fi fantasy of the story “Blue Ink,” in which an ordinary modern-day child is summoned to the end of the world.

My personal favorite stories include “Iseul’s Lexicon,” a longer tale involving strange, cruel, fey-like aliens, in which linguistics are applied defensively to a magical language; and the title story, closing out the collection, in which the myth of the Descent of Inanna is repeated again and again by artificial, far-future entities.

Fans of Shuos Jedao (and, let’s face it, who isn’t a fan of Jedao?) will also enjoy “The Battle of Candle Arc,” his first published appearance, in which we watch him win a space battle using clever tactics against ridiculous odds, and get a hint of the motivation that drives him all through the Machineries of Empire trilogy.

There is a hint of non-neurotypicality in some stories, including “The Shadow Postulates,” in which the protagonist briefly mentions wanting to stim by unraveling the tassels of a carpet, but refrains so as not to disturb her roommate.

But for the most part, non-neurotypicality isn’t highlighted in this collection. It’s simply a very good group of stories by a very good autistic author, and that should be reason enough to go check it out.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Disclosure: I have interacted very occasionally with Yoon Ha Lee online.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 49 and a half: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!

These past two months marked the release of Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, and many autistic authors appeared in this issue at the top of their game – both existing favorite authors of mine and at least one voice which is new to me.

*

Rita Chen, “Ctenophore Soul

[Autistic author] A poem about the central role of damage and injury in… well, all of life, and of choosing to live with the damage instead of trying to erase it. I love the sea imagery in this – I am a sucker for anything involving weird sea creatures and a ctenophore is a real thing. [Recommended-2]

*

Rose Lemberg, “core/debris/core

[Autistic author] This is a poem about skin disease, but also about aesthetics and shame, about the desire to write a future in which everything is clean and perfect, even though this denies and erases the reality of human bodies – particularly disabled human bodies, but also all of them. Angry and compelling. [Recommended-2]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “The Frequency of Compassion”

[Autistic author] Ok so this story just happens to push, like, SEVENTEEN of my personal story buttons at once and I love it. “The Frequency of Compassion” is a first contact story in which Kaityn, a hyperempathic autistic astronaut, encounters a wounded member of an alien hive mind. I love the hive mind – a friendly entity/ies in which individuals remain distinct and valued parts of the whole – so much. I love Kaityn’s helpful AI friend Horatio. I love the way everyone respects each other’s pronouns and needs, how the alien makes mistakes with Kaityn’s mental boundaries and then apologizes and fixes them, how both the AI and the aliens respect and make adjustments for Kaityn’s needs, including the need for a few days of downtime after a stressful experience and for forms of sensory stimulation that aren’t overloading. I love how Kaityn is kind-hearted and interested in art, despite their need to withdraw from other people. I love how they are hyperempathic on a sensory level, but are also shown as deeply caring even when they don’t sense emotions directly – respecting the imagined boundaries of the moon they land on, for instance, with a characteristically (but un-stereotypically) autistic sense of animism. I just. I love almost everything about this. GO READ IT. [Recommended-1]

*

Bogi Takács, “Spatiotemporal Discontinuity

[Autistic author] This poem shares some traits in common with Toward the Luminous Towers and other work of Bogi’s – depicting, not a real-life disability, but the experiences of a person in some other world who is modified for some sort of incredible journey through physical or conceptual space, and who has difficulty with ordinary embodied existence afterwards. Bogi’s writing about this type of techno-magic and its complex personal and social effects is always fascinating, and this one is no exception. [Recommended-2]

*

Finally, while I do not review essays, there are interesting essays in this issue by Bogi, A.C. Buchanan – two by A.C. Buchanan, in fact – Ira Gladkova, and me.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 49: Changeling

Today’s Book: “Changeling” by Delia Sherman

The Plot: Neef, a mortal changeling (i.e. a mortal who was swapped with a fairy and brought to the fairy realms as a child) accidentally breaks a geas. To be allowed to return to her home in a fairy version of Central Park, she must undergo a dangerous quest.

Autistic Character(s): Neef’s fairy changeling counterpart (i.e. the fairy who was swapped with Neef and brought up by mortals). Both Neef and Changeling share a legal, human name, but since true names are dangerous in the fairy world, Neef’s counterpart is referred to mostly as “Changeling”.

Changeling folklore is my problematic fave. The idea of fairies switching their babies with human babies – resulting in human parents having to take care of a disabled, or otherwise defective, fairy child – goes back deep in Western culture. There’s something compelling to many disabled people about the idea that we are not broken or defective humans, however we might appear – we are simply magical creatures who don’t fit into a human’s world. But of course, there’s also something compelling to many ableist parents about the idea that they were owed a normal child, and someone stole it – and that their real, disabled child isn’t quite theirs.

While we no longer believe in fairies, it’s not difficult to see echoes of the changeling myth in modern parents who complain of regressive autism “stealing” their child, or who speak with victory about “getting their child back” when various issues improve. Nor is it difficult to trace a lineage from the parents of changeling folklore, who often threatened the disabled child with harm in hopes of scaring it away and getting the original one back, to various dangerous quack treatments for autism today.

Some disabled people, including myself at times, find something empowering in the idea of being magical creatures. Others find it literally dehumanizing, and will fight tooth and nail to be recognized as always and only and entirely human. (Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s essay on “The Shape of Water” gives an example of this latter perspective.)

Anyway, Delia Sherman’s “Changeling” is a middle-grade fantasy adventure that doesn’t get even a little bit into any of this complexity, which might explain some of my issues with it.

Or maybe that’s not fair. I don’t expect middle-grade books to be super intellectually complex, or to grapple with all the emotional issues that concern me as an adult. I may be barking up the wrong reviewing tree.

Changeling’s role in the story is a very familiar one for autistic sidekicks. Neef discovers her early in the quest, in a dangerous situation, and impulsively promises to keep her safe even though Changeling annoys her. From that point on, Changeling tags along on the rest of the quest: mostly a burden, mostly annoying to Neef, occasionally very useful, always overtly displaying one stereotypical autistic trait or another, and mostly too busy melting down (or shutting down, or engaging in desparate stimming as she tries to cope with all these new experiences) to give her perspective on anything in particular.

Neef is a cutely bratty tween, and she has no training in how to deal with autistic people, so I don’t exactly expect her to be good at dealing with Changeling, but her consistently annoyed cluelessness didn’t exactly make me enjoy the book.

Changeling stumped up behind me, her face stony. “You took me by surprise,” she said. “I do not like surprises.”

I was in no mood to deal with fairy nerves. “Well, you’re just going to have to get used to them.”

“Why?”

“We’re on a quest, that’s why. There’s going to be surprises, and things jumping out of bushes, and all kinds of things you don’t like. If you melt down every time that happens, we’re dead. And I mean that literally.”

Her mouth set in a grim line. “I am afraid. I want to go home.”

“Me, too. Remember what I told you back at the Museum? We have to finish the quest first.”

Changeling hummed. I tapped my foot. “Very well,” she said at last. “I will do my best to expect the unexpected, and I will try not to have a meltdown. It is only fair to warn you that I am not always in control of them.”

She sounded so like the Pooka promising to try and behave that my irritation vanished. “And I’ll do my best to explain things when I can.”

We do get one interesting bit of world-building about changelings early on. Not only is Changeling an autistic child, as the folklore would suggest, but Neef recognizes many of her autistic traits as fairy traits. She counts items to soothe herself, because many fairies also have a counting compulsion; she cannot stand to be touched, because neither can many fairies; her meltdowns are “fairy fits,” and at least one actual fairy has one of those during the story as well.

Neef does make accommodations for a few of these traits, such as holding on to Changeling by her clothes, when hanging on to each other is necessary, instead of holding her hand. But if Changeling’s traits are fairy traits, and Neef has spent her entire life learning how to get along among fairies, then something doesn’t quite add up. Her knowledge of mythological fairies is extensive and she has been deliberately taught and tested on it often – but her knowledge of how to deal with Changeling is really quite small.

I find myself wishing that the book was told from both perspectives and not just Neef’s, because I really want to know what Changeling thinks of many of the developments in the book. She has just discovered that fairies are real and that she, technically, is one. How does she feel about that? Does she want to learn more about fairies in order to better understand herself, or to cling to her adoptive family? How does she feel about Neef, who is essentially a non-autistic version of herself, and who doesn’t seem to like her much? In the latter half of the story, she spends a lot of time looking into a magic handheld mirror that gives her information; what is she watching and learning in there, apart from the quest-relevant things that Neef asks for? Changeling doesn’t say anything about any of these things, and Neef is profoundly uncurious about them.

Changeling also, as I mentioned, does very useful and clever things for Neef a few times, in between shutting/melting down. It’s very unclear whether, and in what way, this changes Neef’s opinion about her; Neef is self-centered like many tweens, and is more concerned with charging ahead to the next part of the quest.

At the end of the book, there are signs that Neef and Changeling have begun to like each other a bit more. Changeling asks Neef to come visit her in the future, and Neef seems moved by the request. But like many friendships and romances in adventure stories, this felt a bit tacked on. I had very little sense of when in the book this sense of friendship had emerged or why.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book more than I’m letting on. Sherman’s fairy New York is a lively and charming place that I enjoyed exploring with Neef. But from a representation standpoint, “Changeling” was a lot like reading a middle-grade version of “Silence” or “Hawk.” Another story where an NT protagonist drags around an autistic character, who is sometimes plot-useful but mostly an annoying burden. I am tired of reading this story. Given the rich emotional significance of changeling folklore is to many autistic people, Changeling’s arc feels like a missed opportunity.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

Disclosure: I have never interacted with Delia Sherman.

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Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 13: Dragon

(First published Feb 18, 2014)

Today’s Book: “Dragon” by Steven Brust.

The Plot: Vlad Taltos, an assassin / witch / general-purpose organized criminal, gets drawn unwillingly into a war between Dragonlords following the theft of a mysterious weapon.

(FYI, this is the eighth book in a series that will eventually have 17.)

Autistic Character(s): Daymar, a Hawklord and powerful psychic.

Daymar isn’t described as having any particular condition, but I am not the only reader to interpret him as being on the spectrum. He is responsible, efficient, and very good at his job, but is at the same time confused by many social expectations and reactions that the other characters take for granted.

While this in itself is a familiar autistic archetype, the details of how Brust writes Daymar go pleasantly against stereotype. Instead of showing his confusion through rude and arrogant behaviour, as many fictional Aspies do, Daymar’s response when he doesn’t understand something is to ask polite questions. I find this rather adorable. Vlad finds it annoying; but Vlad is something of an ornery antihero anyway and I do not think that his opinions reflect those of the author.

Unfortunately, as Rose Lemberg warned me, Daymar doesn’t get much screen time. I happen to quite enjoy Vlad and the Dragaera series in general, though I have been reading the books piecemeal and shamefully out of order. But if you aren’t already a fan, it’s probably not worth reading the whole book just for Daymar; plus, there are aspects of the story which won’t make as much sense to readers who are unused to this storyworld.

Daymar may or may not have more to do in “Hawk”, another installment of the series, which may or may not come out this year.

The Verdict: Marginal

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 12: Rainbow Lights

(First published Feb 2, 2014. Note that my policy on non-specifically non-neurotypical authors has changed slightly since this review was written.)

Today’s Book: “Rainbow Lights” by Polenth Blake, a short story collection.

Let me say this up front: Blake doesn’t identify as an autistic author. Blake identifies as non-neurotypical, but says (in eir online profile) that e doesn’t “have any neat label for that”.

Not everybody who is non-neurotypical is autistic. And not everybody who is non-neurotypical is within the scope of this review series. Frankly, there are LOTS of neurotypes that we don’t consider “normal”, and I don’t know a whole lot about all of them. So taking Blake’s “I am not neurotypical but don’t know exactly what to call it” and assuming that this makes em an autistic author, would be offensive, condescending, appropriative, and probably incorrect.

I don’t want to do that.

But I do want to talk about “Rainbow Lights”, because it’s awesome, and I think it is a book worth approaching from a neurodiverse perspective.

So let’s just get that out of the way. This is not an “autistic book”. It is not a “neurotypical book”, either. It is a book. I am reviewing it. YAY.

Moving on.

The stories in “Rainbow Lights” are organized by color associations, and the opening story, “The Squid Who Lived Forever”, sets the tone. The protagonist in this story is an undersea robot, whose displays of personality, identity, and autonomy are treated as “behavioural malfunctions”. The way the protagonist is treated will be familiar and painful to anyone who has gone through behavioural therapy themselves. Fortunately, the robot gets away, and then there are squid.

Themes like these – of disability, marginalization, outsidership – are an undercurrent running through the whole collection. They are never the point of the story, nor are they ever entirely absent. They recur on almost every level I can think of, not only levels of ability (which is not surprising, given the multiple marginalizations of the author).

Standout stories from a disability perspective include “Grandmother’s Dreaming” – in which the protagonist and her grandmother are almost certainly autistic, and save their village from a freaking awesome magical ocean in which physical tendrils of dreams come out of a vent – and “The Monsters in the Gaps”, in which a dyslexic narrator learns to trust his own perception.

(I should talk about “Grandmother’s Dreaming” a little more, since this IS Autistic Book Party. The protagonist has an atypical, subdued reaction to her grandmother’s death, and gets flak from it from NT villagers, who think she is uncaring. She is simply unemotional about death, as her grandmother was before her. Many autistic people, though by no means all, have this kind of trouble with social grieving rituals. Instead of mourning with the NT villagers, the protagonist sets out to accomplish something in her grandmother’s memory – and ends up discovering and fixing a very important problem which is tied to her grandmother’s past. Concurrently, the better-known parts of her grandmother’s past are explained in flashback, and we learn that the grandmother’s atypical processing actually equipped her to take on a dangerous task when all the NT villagers failed, amid vaguely Lovecraftian sinister sea beings, and save her people many years ago. This isn’t actually spelled out in so many words, because it’s not a Message Story, but it becomes obvious as things progress, and it’s wonderful.)

It is important to note, in light of recent fandom conversations, that absolutely fucking none of this is “message fiction”. The characters are not subject to a gaze that makes their differences the focal point of the story, even though their differences have realistic consequences for them and can affect the plot. They are not avatars of a particular difference; they just are, and the stories are richer for it.

This is really important, and really hard. When privileged writers – even accomplished ones – are consciously trying to “write the other”, it shows. There are effusive demonstrations and descriptions of Just How Much Research The Author Has Done and of Just How Authentic This Is (even when it’s not) – or else the “otherness” of the story becomes so minor that it nearly disappears. Blake’s writing has none of that. Instead it has a kind of nonchalance.

I know enough about art to know that, for authors who “make it look easy”, it’s probably anything but. But one gets the distinct sense that none of this is “other” to Blake; rather, it comes easily precisely because it’s where Blake has lived all along.

When we don’t read multiply marginalized authors, we miss all this good stuff.

Blake is also excellent at writing nonhuman protagonists, including scorpionlike aliens, clockwork automata, and post-apocalyptic beetles, with the same kind of understated ease.

A few stories in the Orange and Red sections do begin to feel self-conscious – including “Incident in Aisle Five,” in which people are somehow living in an enormous department store that takes days to cross. Yet even in this kind of story, when one scratches the surface, one finds a seething unease rooted in real experience:

The world kept us walking in straight lines down the aisles, managed our open hours, said what were in and out this season. We didn’t get more choice as we grew. We just learnt to be silent, because asking all those questions never got answers.

The only real clunker in the book is the poem “To Laugh at Acorns”, which caught me off guard, because it reads like something straight out of an Autism Speaks commercial. I have no idea how an author who’s otherwise as clueful as Blake fell down so hard on that one. It doesn’t actually mention the word “autism”, so maybe Blake was simply thinking of something else when e wrote it. I have no idea. Mercifully, that one is short.

So in summary, there are uneven bits, as in any collection, but my overall impression was positive. If you like diversity and awesome sea creatures / aliens / robots, and stories that are unusual without feeling strained, and you want more non-neurotypical authors in your collection – or mix-and-match any subset of these – this book is for you.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 11 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

(First published Jan 27, 2014.)

W.H. Pugmire & M.K. Snyder, “The House of Idiot Children” (Weird Tales, Jan-Feb 2008)

An Orthodox Jewish man doing Facilitated Communication with autistic children discovers that the children are capable of seeing extra, magical letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This one is wince-inducing, not because of the magical powers per se, but because the magical powers are used to exoticize the children without humanizing them one bit. They are, as the story’s final paragraphs say, “more angelic than human,” and never once does their apparent enlightenment give them anything to say about their preferences, their desires, the way they are treated, etc. This is actually a very common kind of fail, and one of the kinds that can be mistaken for an inspiring story by well-meaning NTs. (As if the title wasn’t already warning enough.) But fail is what it is. [Not Recommended]

*

Ryan Leeds, “Updates Available” (Expanded Horizons, March 2011)

[Autistic author.] An autistic narrator writes to their only friend, a robot, just before being forced into “cure” surgery. Very short, but good. [Recommended-1]

*

Erika Hammerschmidt, “Furnace” (This Is How You Die, July 2013)

[Autistic author.] Far-future archaeologists discover a Machine of Death long after the end of our present civilization and proceed to comically misunderstand its purpose. Autism as such isn’t mentioned, but the archaeologists seem to have some autistic traits; in particular, there’s an adorable scene of the two main characters melting down together after something goes wrong. [Recommended]

*

Conor Powers-Smith, “The Day” (Lakeside Circus, January 2014)

I’m not sure if the protagonist in this flash fic is supposed to be autistic, but his sensory defensiveness in the opening paragraphs is instantly recognizeable to me. (Seriously. I use my iPod that way all the time, though not actually at max volume, and usually with bands I enjoy.) Unfortunately, we never get much sense of his emotions or thoughts apart from his immediate sensory experience. I don’t think this intentionally comes from a place of ableism; I think it’s just sloppy writing. [Not Recommended]

*

Malisha Dewalt, “Misery Is Not a Virtue” (Stone Telling #10, January 2014)
[Autistic author.] Okay actually it’s a visual/prose poem, but it deserves to be on this list anyway because it’s very much about autism and people’s social expectations. Apart from the general theme I must admit I found it hard to understand. But readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness work more than I do should definitely check it out. [YMMV]

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 11 and a half: Short Story Spotlight

(First published Dec 5 2013. Minor edits have been made.)

The story: Luna Lindsey, “Touch of Tides”, Crossed Genres, Issue 8 (August 2013)

Lindsey’s protagonist, Dr. Mara Skyberg, has Asperger syndrome, though this isn’t explicitly explained in the story (Lindsey mentions it in her New Author Spotlight interview). She also experiences synesthesia. Both her synesthesia and her autistic traits prove invaluable when she discovers sentient alien life during her job as a scientist on Europa.

The role of the synesthesia will be obvious to any reader, and is cool to see. The role of the autistic traits is subtler. Mara is impatient with the social compromises and power games which slow her NT co-workers down when a crisis happens, and bravely swims out into Europa’s ocean to solve the problem though the rest of them object. Also, her co-workers frequently make incorrect assumptions about her feelings and needs, thinking she will want the same kind of interaction preferred by NTs (which is a very, very common communication problem that happens in real life). Mara has picked up on this, so she is also quick to figure out when the humans have made incorrect assumptions about the aliens’ needs.

It’s really cool to see a situation where an autistic character’s way of thinking becomes an asset to communication. Instead of assuming that the autistic character will always be bad at it and the NTs will always be good.

Also, I wanted to mention this line:
I also hate when he calls them barns. I can’t help but picture the station full of farm animals.
Which is a throwaway line and not important at all, but it made me happy, because I used to respond to a lot of non-literal statements in this way. Autistic people are famous for taking statements literally, but it’s often more complicated than a simple comprehension problem. I used to strongly picture literal meanings even though I knew perfectly well that the speaker didn’t mean them, and it would bother me, especially if the literal meaning was something hyperbolically emotional or violent.

(As a grown-up, I’ve mellowed out about this, but I still hate the “exaggerated negative emotions as humor” trope. My brain focuses on the negative emotions rather than the absurdity of the exaggeration, and it gets very awkward.)

Anyway, that’s a tangent, but Lindsey is a cool autistic author who’s written a cool autistic story, and you should check it out. I’m certainly adding her other stories to my TBR list.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.5: Short Story Smorgasbord

(First published Sep 19, 2013)

*

Cat Rambo, “Long Enough and Just So Long” – Lightspeed Magazine, February 2011

Pippi, a sportscaster and the narrator’s best friend, is described as “borderline Aspie”. While this informs her personality, the story isn’t really about autism at all. Pippi isn’t entirely sympathetic, but she reads like a real person with realistic human flaws as well as good points, and with real emotions that she sometimes has difficulty expressing. [Recommended.]

*

Pamela Sargent, “Strawberry Birdies” – Asimov’s, December 2011

The narrator, a little girl, resents her autistic brother Cyril and repeatedly wishes he would go away. Then some people from an alternate universe show up and do take him away. They have better assistive technology in their universe and claim that it’s best for Cyril to go with them because he can never “use his gifts” or have a happy family in the universe were he was born. The narrator goes to a universe where her parents never had an autistic child and are much happier as a result. Then I headdesk a lot at the entire thing. The end. [Not Recommended.]

*

Ken Liu, “The Countable” – Asimov’s, December 2011

I found this story too upsetting to evaluate clearly, but I didn’t notice any egregious autism fail. Fans of Liu’s work who like autistic protagonists (and aren’t triggered by depictions of domestic abuse) will probably enjoy it. [YMMV.]

*

Nino Cipri (writing as Nicole Cipri), “A Silly Love Story” – Daily Science Fiction, September 2012

Jeremy, a “neurodiverse” college student, falls in love with a genderqueer classmate named Merion and also deals with a friendly poltergeist. This is a super cute, quirky story in which both the autistic character and the genderqueer character are well drawn. Jeremy’s troubles in school and anxiety about his future are realistic, but he never becomes an object of pity. [Recommended.]

*

Meda Kahn, “Difference of Opinion” – Strange Horizons, September 2013

I was really dubious about the first scene of this, because I’m not fond of “in the future, oppressed people are even more oppressed” as a plot. But then I read the rest and WOW, this author knows her stuff. (And, as for fictionalized oppression, the gap between what’s going on in the story and what goes on IRL isn’t nearly as big as one might think.) Also, non-speaking characters: This is how you write them. And also, queerness! And autistic people getting together for actual advocacy of each other (even though that doesn’t actually work out too great in the story). Basically why are you even still reading this review and not READING THE STORY. GO DO THAT NOW. [Recommended.]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 47/48: Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun

Today’s Books: Two for the price of one! “Raven Stratagem” and “Revenant Gun,” both sequels to “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee – also known as the Machineries of Empire series.

The Plot: After the events of “Ninefox Gambit,” the hexarchate – and Cheris and Jedao – have to pick up the pieces. (It’s really hard to write non-spoilery plot hooks for sequels, wheeee.)

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I pounced on these books and devoured them because of a rumor that “Revenant Gun” contained an autistic character. This rumor is not true, sorry! But they are still cracking good space operas with delightful magic space battles and intrigue which are every bit as compelling as the first one.

It’s really hard to say a lot of detailed stuff about these two books without giving spoilers for “Ninefox Gambit,” or for new stuff that happens. Also, I read both books in a bit of a concerned haze because I was trying way too hard to figure out who the autistic character was and couldn’t figure it out. A discussion in Lee’s open thread about “Revenant Gun,” listing other neurodivergent characters, suggests that there was never meant to be one in the first place.

(I did wonder at times about Kel Brezan, who is cranky, fidgety, fixated on small details and seemingly unable to perform the social scripts that go with the powerful role he is given – but overall the evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest that Brezan was meant to be autistic, or any other specific thing. Brezan is, however, a “crashhawk” – someone for whom Kel formation instinct doesn’t function properly – which is arguably an in-universe form of neurodivergence!)

The overall portrayal of neurodiversity in this trilogy was never bad, but I did note a few concerns in my previous review. These concerns are things that improve over the course of the series! In particular, “Ninefox Gambit” gives us several minor characters who appear to be examples of the “sociopathic villain” trope, but the next two books develop these characters further and give them much more nuance which pulls them away from the problematic elements of that trope.

According to the open thread, Shuos Mikodez, one of these characters, was patterned after manic phases which are #ownvoices for the author (although he also pinged as possibly ADHD to me and at least one other reader). He’s shown taking meds, relying on an aide and a double for support, and realistically needing these accommodations while also being brilliant and good at his job. A more monstrous character, Nirai Kujen, is… I don’t know how to talk about it without spoilers, but in “Revenant Gun” we learn much more about how Kujen came to be the way he is, and I found it very compelling because I have absolutely met people who would turn evil in that way if they could. Eeeeep.

Anyway, most of the book isn’t about this stuff, but about MAGIC SPACE BATTLES and revolutions and divided loyalties and cute robots, and it is really excellent. Machineries of Empire is one of my favorite sci-fi series, not just by autistic authors, but out of all the sci-fi series I have read ever. Go read it 😀

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: Yoon Ha Lee and I have had one very brief correspondence, which is described in the “Ninefox Gambit” review. We haven’t otherwise interacted.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 46: Graveyard Sparrow

[ETA: At Kay Bashe’s request, I have added this note to mention that they are a non-neurotypical author. Kay is not autistic but has ADHD, anxiety, and nonverbal learning disability.]

[TW: One of the book excerpts quoted in this review contains a graphic description of violence.]

Today’s Book: “Graveyard Sparrow” by Kayla Bashe

The Plot: In a Regency setting, a non-neurotypical lady detective stumbles onto a string of serial murders – and falls in love with the witch who is helping her manage the side effects of her abilities.

Autistic Character(s): Katriona Sparrow, the aforementioned lady detective.

So, the “brilliant non-neurotypical detective” trope is… like… a thing. And I might have gone in with the wrong expectations based on the cover blurb, because I was intrigued anticipating what a queer disability activist like Bashe would do with a female version of, like, Bones or Sherlock or something. Instead:

“This is how: in a rain- and blood-slicked alleyway, last breath a gasp. I was so scared. He begins to cut off my arms while I am still alive. It is my punishment for not fighting back. I was not good enough. At last he lets me die. He then finishes cutting off my arms and removes my head and legs, and he sings while he works. Now I am dead and fabric-wrapped. This is his art.”

The stark impression of that final word stabbed into Katriona like shards of glass. Her hand felt burnt—a pure horrible heat that traveled up her arm and into her head—and as she sprang to her feet she cried out like a wounded animal.  Her head had been bad before, but now it was worse. The entire thought-babble of the city flooded into her, and she was caught and pulled apart in the vortex of a thousand minds.

So, Katriona isn’t a Sherlock who deduces things with logic; she’s a Will Graham who solves crimes with magic hyperempathy. This is, like, fine – they are both non-neurotypical detective tropes that deserve an intersectional feminist exploration – it just startled me a bit.

In fact, Katriona is pretty much literally Will Graham. Despite the gender flip and the Regency setting, once this book gets going it’s very obviously a “Hannibal” fix-it fic – right down to details like the artful food arrangements and the dogs. (Bashe doesn’t even try to keep it a secret who the Hannibal Lecter-equivalent character, and therefore the killer, is. That’s clear from the end of the first chapter, and the suspense comes mainly from worrying about what will happen in the interactions between him and Katriona. Which, to be fair, is still a lot of suspense.)

Anyway, Katriona is a well-written autistic character with agency, feelings, and interests. She has a believable, and believably impairing, range of autistic traits:

“I was the oddest child ever born. Sometimes I would start crying for no reason at all. I’d have tantrums that lasted hours, or I’d ignore people entirely. Even then, I could feel everything. It’s easier for me when I’m with small groups of people, and it got easier after I met Doctor Fuellore. He told my parents that it was all right for me to play by myself in the corner at parties and work with a tutor instead of going to school, and he made sure there were things in the house I could touch to calm myself down, like flowers and soft fabric and strings of beads.”

But her autistic traits are also depicted with nuance:

As much as Katriona hated large crowds in social settings, she was very good at holding court when it came to her work. All she had to do was look at a space just past everyone and talk about what she knew best. She was especially interested in death, and could therefore discuss it with anyone at any time.

In particular, one of my favorite details is how “Graveyard Sparrow” shows Katriona making a stereotypical autistic mistake – blurting things out bluntly and insensitively, in a way that hurts people – while also clearly showing that this isn’t due to Katriona being internally insensitive, or failing to care.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…” He was gazing at her with impatience, with impassive judgment, and everything she had intended to say slipped out of her head, as if her mind was a bucket that someone had kicked a hole through. “She’s dead,” she blurted out. Tears pushed at her voice, and she smoothed her sleeves compulsively. “In an alleyway dressed up like the Mona Lisa. With a wig on.”

His expression turned bitter. “I’ve heard about you; pampered little brat. And even in this moment, you couldn’t show an ounce of sensitivity, could you? You have no place here.”

He was right. She wasn’t good with people. The more nervous she got, the more awkward she became, and when she was awkward it seemed like rudeness.

Anthea, Katriona’s love interest, is a witch who figures out that Katriona is experiencing debilitating symptoms because of sensory overload resulting mainly from her hyperempathy, and who takes on the role of a healer to teach her magical techniques for managing and being selective about her sensory input. That makes this the third story I’ve reviewed in which a magical mind-healer interacts with an autistic person without trying to cure their autism. It seems that this is a trope that interests authors, and apparently it’s also a trope I enjoy. Compared to Geometries of Belonging or A Rational Arrangement, the idea of a cure is touched on relatively lightly – which is fine, because in this context, it doesn’t need more than that. But it is touched on:

Katriona tried to smile, but ended up just examining her slippers and rubbing her arms. “You’re not going to make me exactly the same as everyone else, are you? I would hate that.”

“No, of course not. Well be working on mitigating the agoraphobia and anxiety caused by your inability to set up a psychic shield, not on whatever it is that makes you you. I wouldn’t want anyone to erase parts of my personality either.”

The fact that this is a romance between a healer and their patient means there is a potentially unethical power imbalance that has to be dealt with, and “Graveyard Sparrow” does touch on that issue, although not particularly deeply; I would have liked to see it a bit more developed in places.

“Graveyard Sparrow” is marketed as fighting back against the “beautiful dead girl” trope, and it does do that. Of course, people have been objecting to that trope for a long time, but it’s still a trope that shows up uncritically all over our media, so stories that fight it are still worthwhile, even when they’re not saying anything especially new. And in places, Bashe’s implicit critique is delightfully pointed:

“They had names.” She leaned in toward him. He didn’t flinch. “Laura. Jenny. Helena.”

A thin-lipped smile. “You shouldn’t criticize my art, Katriona. If you criticize art, it means that you merely do not understand it. I wish to help you understand, Little Bird. We must break you of this inclination toward censorship.”

What I found more novel and more compelling, though, was the way that this book subverts tropes on a disability axis. Where “Graveyard Sparrow” really departs from its source material is in the amount of care that Katriona receives. Will Graham is often treated as a magic crime solving device, and struggles alone. So are many other usefully psychic characters in spec fic, for that matter. Katriona gets a friend who understands what she is going through and why, who knows what kind of accommodations will help her to manage her unusual senses without erasing them, and who helps because she values Katriona’s well-being, not because she wants Katriona to do something for her. Katriona gets an arc where she moves from being controlled and sheltered “for her own good” by people who want to use her, to being given useful accommodations so that she can explore life as she wishes. This is the part of the book that really felt huge, subversive, and refreshing to me.

If you like Regency romance and aren’t scared off by the grisly serial killing, and if you don’t mind the sometimes rather blatant parallels to its source material, then “Graveyard Sparrow” is a book that is very much for you.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: I run into Kay Bashe on Twitter every once in a while, but I don’t think we’ve significantly interacted. I read their book by buying an e-copy for my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.